Entering Chongqing, a 32m people city-municipality split off from Sichuan province in 1997, the earth opens up. The deeper we get from the border the more the conical mountains of western Hunan seem to have been squashed and stretched, the earth torn high and filled with wide rivers of every shade from tan to teal to turquoise. At points even these colors themselves mix; seafoam tributaries from the mountains fall and curl into khaki torrents as they move unperturbed through years of bedrock overgrown with jungle trees that bend like a mass of monarch caterpillars. Houses, farms and factories all hug the river, some on corners of the bank only accessible by boat, dangling as close as they can to the edge, clinging to it like a child to it's mother. As we wind from one canyon to the next it seems increasingly unbelievable that the amalgamation of these deep valleys and high ravines is a municipality the size of Malaysia; a mass of people looking out from high rises hooking up from the hills who rely fully on the river –their lives pulsing with it’s ebb and flow. It’s a place very different from the China we’ve been in until now.
When we wake up in Tonggu, about a third of the way to Chongqing, the voices that ask us about breakfast seem to come from a different kind of mouth. The Sichuan accent lifts and falls much smoother than standard mandarin, undulating like the river itself. We drive a full day over, above, and through the mountains on the S304, each gorge opening in a different way –each section of river a slightly different hue. Massive tunnels intersperse the mountain road, some left unfinished in the interior and others as long as 4km. A testament of mans will to move. In between stops we pull up or helmets and look back from the rock walls to agree: I think this is the best drive we’ve done yet.
Long construction delays, where the car behind us takes out its Alaskan husky –the dog as big as our bikes– for a walk, make is so we only hobble in to Fuling, a city 100km from downtown Chongqing, by nightfall. We wander into a Korean restaurant where the owner, a year younger than us and about to be a mother, gives us Zongzi and soda for the dragon boat holiday in equal parts elation and concern. As heavy, hard rain begins to fill the streets we decide to lay our heads here for the night.
Fuling sits were the Yangtze and Wu rivers meet. In a park over looking the point where the latte colored Wu, swollen from the rain, converges in to the now beige Yangtze, we eat the Zongzi for breakfast. Dragonflies fill the sky; apparently an omen of rain –but it’s hard to tell if it’s coming or going. We start talking with an older man who tells us he comes to this park everyday. He can barley hear us and we can barley understand him, but he laughs enthusiastically as he smokes from a pipe stuffed with a hand-made cigarette, a commonplace for the older generation in this area.
The sun lights our path as we ride toward Chongqing city on the comfortable mountain twists of the G319. Up the next set of mountains and the river has completely disappeared from our view, blatantly there on the map, but hidden behind tumbling hills. Although this area is all technically chongqing, it couldn't feel farther from the suburbs .